UN expert warns new El Salvador law harms judicial independence

UN Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers Gabriela Knaul warned July 2 that a new law in El Salvador requiring its high court to issue unanimous judgments is an “attack” on judicial independence and the separation of powers. The law, passed by the Legislative Assembly and issued by the president (as Decree 743), places requirements on the judgments of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court. Knaul said that requiring unanimous rulings will harm the judges’ ability to function effectively. She stated:

El Salvador, as a country that is consolidating its democracy, should pay particular attention to the full independence of the judiciary and the principle of separation of powers enshrined in international instruments of which it is a party and which are enshrined in the Salvadoran constitution. The other branches of government cannot force the country’s highest court to take judicial decisions unanimously, as the matters that fall within its competence are, by their very nature and complexity, controversial. [If followed, it] would block the activity and the effective functioning of the country’s highest court and therefore substantially limit the rights of Salvadorian citizens to appeal to that court in defence of their fundamental rights.

The law has been controversial in El Salvador, where civic organizations are pushing for its repeal, and it has sparked debate between the branches of government.

El Salvador has struggled with judicial independence in the past. In 2008, Hundreds of judges and lawyers in El Salvador marched to the Supreme Court of Justice to protest challenges that the attorney general made to the rulings of four judges. Attorney General Felix Safie asked the Supreme Court to investigate judges’ decisions, which freed prisoners convicted of acts of murder, robbery and rape prior to the expiration of their sentence.

From Jurist, July 3. Used with permission.

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  1. Victory in “El Salvador Spring”
    In late July, El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly voted to repeal controversial Decree 743, which required the Constitutional Court, the country’s highest judicial body, to reach decisions by unanimous consent. After a wave of popular protests, deputies from both the conservative ARENA and the leftist FMLN parties voted for repeal by a two-thirds majority.

    Decree 743 was rushed through the legislature and passed June 2 by a coalition of ARENA and other conservative parties, with no public debate. The left-wing FMLN delegates abstained. To the surprise of many, President Mauricio Funes of the FMLN immediately signed the bill into law. The law’s repeal ended two months of political protests that local media dubbed “El Salvador Spring.” (NACLA, Aug. 5)